Authors: Nichole Christoff
Shoving my square-rimmed glasses higher on the bridge of my nose and clutching my sparkling evening bag to my side, I left Philip to glower after me and sashayed behind a steady stream of waiters carrying away the detritus of the party. When they ducked behind a precisely placed palm, I did, too. But when they descended the wide sweep of the townhouse's back stairs, whipping off their masks and breaking from their professional silence to compare notes and have a laugh at the fat cats John had assembled, I crept upward, toward the house's third floor.
A swinging panel deposited me at the end of a long hallway, papered in a soothing beige print and studded with shaded brass wall sconces. Every few feet was a door. Before I could tap on the first one, I heard a stream of girly giggles.
“Oh, Georgie, I couldn't!”
I moved on before Georgie could change his lady friend's mind, and behind the second door, I found a vacant guest room.
Behind the third, one of the waiters lay across the bed's moirÃ© coverlet, a bottle of brandy curled to his chest and an empty one on the floor. He'd shoved his mask to the top of his head and its schnoz pointed north like a compass needle. I couldn't quite make out the song he sang to himself, but the refrain sounded a lot like something from Duran Duran's greatest hits collection.
I gave up on the doors on that side of the corridor, tiptoed across an Aubusson runner as thick as virgin forest, and selected the chamber at the end of the hall.
John's master suite opened before me like an oyster on the half-shell. Like all rooms put together by professional designers, this one had a definite theme. I'd have said the theme was Nature Meets Nurture. Bookshelves fashioned from timber the color of driftwood lined the walls. They held books with titles in languages I couldn't read and a collection of birds fashioned from bark and sticks. River stones, inlaid in the floor, carved out a path from the door to the desk.
I followed that path, hustling past the glassed-in gas fireplace that separated the sitting room from the sleeping area, and pounced on the bleached-wood desk positioned to overlook the London skyline out the windows. The drawers weren't locked. I took that as a bad sign.
And a bad sign it was. My fingers made fast work of the desk's contents, but I found nothing more than stationery, paper clips, and petty cash. I certainly didn't find a postcard from Armand Oujdad.
Frustrated, I spun in John's Aeron chair, took in the rest of the room. A couple of trinket boxes rested on the coffee table before a sofa in the middle of the room. They weren't big enough to hide a smartphone, laptop, or tablet, though.
The sofa and table were positioned to get a good view of the large painting over the fireplace. It was a provocatively posed nude by an artist whose style I didn't recognize. And I figured the painting hid John's TVâbut could it hide a safe instead?
I was in front of the portrait in an instant, had it moved in a second. Behind it slept a Sony flat screen. And that was all.
I rounded the fireplace with its row of burning jets, entered John's bedroom. Along one wall was a wardrobe big enough to house all of Narnia and, on another, a matching dresser held toiletries and more birds, including a ratty-looking owl of twigs and berries. In the dead center of the room, a massive platform bed lay in a beech-wood surround. Nightstands flanked both sides of it. But from the archway, I could see a stack of papers, crowned with a fat fountain pen and a pair of reading glasses, on the far stand.
“Yes!” I murmured, congratulating myself.
But as I did, a glint crossed the glassy eye of the owl figurine.
And I froze. Because the eye of the bird was a camera lens. And apparently, it was sound-activated.
For all I knew, it was broadcasting a live feed. That meant somewhere in the building, a guy with a clipboard at a console wide enough to service the International Space Station was probably watching my every move. And reporting the breech of John's bedroom to those who wouldn't take too kindly to itâor to me.
For one long beat of my heart, I waited for a crew of goons to bust in and grab me.
When that didn't happen, I hightailed it to the ballroom.
I found Philip holding down one end of the bar, sipping scotch.
He chuckled when he saw me. “Jamie, you look decidedly cross.”
“That's funny. Really, I'm mad as hell.”
And I was. At myself. I'd made an amateur's mistake. One that could've left a video recording documenting my presence in John's room. Of course, with the way my luck was running, if more of John's birds were wired for sound, I'd probably starred in a video as I'd tossed the great man's desk, too.
I explained all this to Philip.
As I wrapped up my recitation, he covered my hand with his.
“Breathe, Jamie. No one's rushing over to toss you out on your ear.”
He had a point. He also signaled the bartender. It was the same one who'd plied us with John's special champagneâbut I couldn't sit still while the man poured me another glass of the bubbly stuff.
I hopped from my bar stool, started for the grand galleryâand the exit.
Philip caught up with me, my champagne in one hand, his scotch in the other.
“We need to get out of here,” I told him.
I looked past his shoulder to see if John's henchmen were in hot pursuit. Thankfully, they weren't. Yet.
Philip must've been thinking similar thoughts.
He handed me the champagne glass, pointed me toward a pair of Palladian French doors. The doors gave onto a narrow balcony. It hung on the side of the magnificent building, ran the length of the ballroom. Below, a private park waited in the blue moonlight. On the balcony itself, a collection of potted palms and tall rubber trees gave new meaning to the phrase “urban jungle.” And if the shifting shadows and low laughter were anything to go by, a number of John's guests had sought their cover to steal a breath of fresh air, a smoke, or a kiss.
Philip extracted his cell phone from his breast pocket and called for his car.
“Now,” he murmured, slipping an arm around my waist, “we smile, we sip, and in less than ten minutes, we get the hell out of here.”
“I'll drink to that.”
And I did. The champagne danced on my tongue. I closed my eyes, felt the chilled wine sparkle all the way down my throat.
“Do that again,” Philip said, and there was no mistaking the growl in his voice.
“No.” With a firm hand, I set the empty flute on the stone railing.
“Not even if I beg?”
I was too old and too sophisticated to blush when a handsome man flirted with me.
But I felt my cheeks heat all the same.
Philip turned me in his arms, drew me deeper into the shadows. “Say you haven't learned where the old man is hiding. Say you're not about to say goodbye.”
We were toe to toe, but I couldn't see his face. It was cloaked in the dusk of the night. However, I could hear the yearning in his voiceâand feel the quickening of my blood.
“Maybe,” I said, “you could come visit me in Virginia.”
“Or you could let the damn physicist fend for herself. You could remain in London.”
“No,” I said, trying to turn all this into a joke. “I'd miss the sunset over the Potomac.”
“Well, you're here tonight,” Philip murmured, his mouth taking its sweet time brushing against my ear, “and I've got a splendid view of the sunrise at my flat.”
I bet he did.
And for one brief moment, I wondered what it would be like to let Philip make good on his promises. Would I regret it in the morning? Would I regret it ever?
But before I got tangled up in Philip's sheets, my conscience reminded me there was Barrett to consider.
At least, that's how it seemed when I'd left DC.
Here in London, however, Barrett had been like someone else. Someone secretive. And someone deadly.
Still, I couldn't walk away from him. Because I was certain killing Dalmatovis hadn't been his idea. And I sure as hell wasn't going to see him rot in a UK prison for it.
So where did that leave me?
Before I could figure it out, Philip left my ear aloneâand kissed my lips.
His kiss was bold and brazen and said much more than I'd been brave enough to hear.
But I wasn't afraid. Not when he kissed me. So I reached for him, wrapped my uninjured arm around his neck.
Philip laughed low in his throat and kissed me again, deeper this time. And my fingertips began to tingle. So did my toes. I wanted to laugh at the sensationâuntil the tingling became a bristling that traveled along my limbs. It took up residence at the base of my brain.
I doubted the feeling had anything to do with Philip's kiss.
And that began to scare me.
I put a palm to his lapel, pushed my way out of his arms.
“Darling, are you all right?”
“IâI just need some air.”
“Take a breath.”
The hum at the back of my brain made me do exactly as Philip said. But all the air on the balcony couldn't clear the fog from my head. Or stop the buzzing of my brain stem.
I needed a minute. I needed to move. I stumbled into a bar of light spilling from the ballroom to cut across the balcony's flagstone floor.
Philip's hand wrapped around my arm. “Darling, you don't want John's security to see you this way. Come with me. The car should be downstairs by now.”
That buzz in my brainstem turned into a growl. It made me want to do exactly as Philip asked. Still, I knew I'd never make it to his car. I was sure of that. I shook off Philip's hand, said something about the ladies' room.
I blundered my way through the ballroom and into the gallery. There, one of the girls in the flame-red dresses directed me to a cloakroom. I crossed the threshold, gathered a vague impression of green marble and gold fixtures, and tripped toward a wash basin.
I splashed cold water on my overheated cheeks.
But it was too late.
My eyelids drooped. The room tilted when I tried to cross the floor. The gilded doorknob of the ladies' lounge was the only thing keeping me vertical. I heard the titters of the ladies perched on overstuffed poufs in the middle of the room, patting powder on their faces and touching up their lipstick. They didn't bother to hide their amusement when one of them confided, “Drunk.”
The woman's whisper made the growl in my head grind into high gear. I wanted to follow her suggestion. I wanted to drink until I couldn't drink anymore.
I was frightened.
But I wasn't drunk. I couldn't be. Sure, I'd had two shots of vodka in Philip's car, but that was hours ago. I hadn't had anything to drink sinceâexcept a single glass of John's champagne before I'd searched his rooms.
And a single glass of champagne afterward.
John's bartender had poured it for me after I'd triggered the video camera in John's rooms. Philip had carried it for me to the balcony. And there I'd downed the whole thing.
But a couple of glasses of France's finest surely wouldn't do this to me.
Unless there'd been more in that second flute than the wine.
So my champagne had been drugged. It was the only explanation that seemed to make sense. But why would anyone want to drug me?
Because I was hell-bent on finding Armand Oujdad.
And because my host wanted him to stay lost.
Staggering into a stall, I stuck my index finger down my throat and tossed my cookies to the Porcelain God. Not that it helped. I still felt awful. And even worse, the world around me had begun to take on all the characteristics of a Warner Brothers' Looney Toon.
I had to get out of here.
I had to find Philip.
I had to get help.
I shoved against the stall door. It bounced back like a sheet of rubber. Still, I found myself on the proper side of it. One of the women tittered as I staggered.
In the gallery, I saw no sign of Philip. I prayed he was waiting for me in the car. But the car seemed miles away.
My handbag dangled from my shoulder on its chain-link strap. My phone was in it, I knew. I'd phone Philip. I would. But the bag's clasp was a jeweled rose. When I reached for it, the blossom's petals gaped like the jaws of a bear trap and it gnashed its crystalline teeth. I recoiled, afraid for my fingers.
And that left me with one course of action.
I'd have to walk out on my own.
I tottered toward the sweeping staircase at the end of the hall. It undulated like a cartoon canine's tongue. Elegant couples didn't seem to notice as they traipsed up and down its steps.
But I did. I was trapped. And I was terrified.
Against my training as a private investigator, against my upbringing as a general's daughter, and even against my very nature, I began to cry.
I jumped, startled by the hook-beaked bird who'd spoken to me. He was as big as a man and just as bold. Instead of feathers, however, he wore a garish green jacket. As I tried my damndest to make sense of that, the memory of all those servers wandering through the party came rushing back to me. And then it hit me.
He was one of them.
The waiter offered me his gilded tray. It flashed like a mirror in the sun. “Champagne, miss?”
The growl in my brain became a roar. And as if it had a mind of its own, my hand reached for a glass. Somehow, I managed to stop it.
“Miss?” The server bent closer. “Are you all right?”
Here among all these Brits, there was something strange about the waiter's speech. Not that I could put my finger on it. He had an accent that sounded sort of like mine and I was still relatively sure I was an American. Which meant he was, too. But that didn't make sense.
One idea did latch hold, though. This guy worked for John. And John had drugged me. So I couldn't trust this guy. Not by a long shot.
I turned on my heel. I tried to get away. My knees folded like the legs of a cheap card table. The man's tray clattered to the floor. He caught me as I crumpled.
He works for John,
my mind screamed.
John, John, John!
I slapped at the hand the man had wrapped around my waist, pried at the fingers gripping my arm, shoved at the mask covering his face.
But he wouldn't let me go.
The waiter said, “Take it easy, honey.”
And just like that, I realized I was in Barrett's arms.
He swept me off my feet, carried me like a bride toward the honeymoon suite. I couldn't do a thing to stop him. He retreated along the gallery, bumped a panel in the endless wall with his hip. A hidden door swung open. And just like that, we were headed down the back stairs.
For no reason I could name, I began to giggle. “Drugged.”
“It's worse than that.”
Barrett was probably right.
We emerged from the house through some kind of side door. Across the road, the private park I'd seen from above was as dark as the Forest of Dean. On the near side, the blue burn of street lamps left plenty of room for shadow. Parked cars crowded under the lights and were crammed against the curb. Something about their dark headlamps and quiet engines made me decide they were sleeping.
Barrett set me on my own two feet. He pressed a hand to his side and I remembered he'd been beaten. Still, he managed to shed that horrible mask, shuck his green waiter's coat.
When he whistled through his teeth, I shushed him.
“Don't wake the cars,” I warned him.
“I won't,” he promised, then shoved me into a black cab that had swerved to a stop in front of us.
“Must've been some party, gov.”
The driver's voice sounded like a fast slide down a long gravel road and for a second, I thought he was a man without a body. As far as I could see, he didn't even have a mouth. Only his eyes and nose hovered over the back of his seatâuntil I realized I was seeing his reflection in the rearview mirror.
Barrett seemed hip to this. Either that or a formless driver didn't bother him. He shoved a neon banknote through the Plexiglas divider between the front of the cab and the back.
I couldn't make out its denomination, but given the way my eyes kept going in and out of focus, it was fun to try. Watercolor pools of electric color flowed across the bill. Queen Elizabeth, crowned in all her glory, looked out from her portrait.
She turned, smiled, and winked at me.
To the driver, Barrett said, “Here's fifty pounds. Put your foot to the floor.”
The driver must've accepted Barrett's proposal because we careened around a corner and Barrett slid into me, pinning me between his solid body and the wall of the cab. I nuzzled the collar of his shirt because it was thereâand because he smelled so good. Like the sugar and spice of scones and morning teaâ¦
“â¦after a long night of making love.”
Barrett cleared his throat.
The cabbie began to cough.
And it dawned on me I'd voiced my wayward thoughts out loud.
Embarrassment threatened to burn me up. But the feeling didn't last long. Because we'd arrived at Rabbit's Revenge.
Upstairs, Barrett hammered on the door to my suite with the side of his fist. Katie opened it. The security chain glittered beneath her nose like a golden mustache.
The thought of Katie with a precious metal mustache made me start to giggle all over again.
“Jamie!” she exclaimed. “What on earth's happened to you?”
“She needs an emetic,” Barrett growled.
He deposited me on the sofa. The upholstery was fat and fluffyâlike a unicorn pelt. But I was against cruelty to unicorns and so I began to cry.
Ikaat thrust a tumbler of cut crystal under my nose. “Drink this.”
The roar in my brain made me as biddable as a lost lamb. I did as she ordered. The taste was salty and sharp and got stuck in the back of my throat. Still, I forced myself to swallow because Ikaat had told me to. I gagged as I did.
“It's horrible,” I wailed.
“It will make you vomit.”
No sooner were the words out of Ikaat's mouth than I did exactly that.
Barrett, to his credit, kept my hair out of the toilet bowl and rubbed my back in slow circles while I was sick. I couldn't imagine Philip doing such a thing. Somehow, I kept that opinion to myself.
When my stomach settled, I decided I wanted to spend the rest of my life on the bathroom's cool tile floor.
“The drinks at that party came with a hell of a kicker,” I muttered.
“You were drugged,” Barrett told me, “with a compound designed to make you spill your guts.”
“Very funny,” I said, considering I'd just spilled them all over the bathroom.
And then I realized what he meant. The drug was to make me willing. Willing to do anything. Willing to say anything. Willing to tell someone all I knew about any subject he choseâsuch as the Oujdads and what I was doing in London.
Such a tactic was an intense interrogation technique. And not everyone in the world had access to the chemical compounds to make it happen. It would take a government connection to get them. And I'd just seen dozens of party guests at John's townhouse, each with a connection of his or her own.
Ikaat knelt beside me, wiped my face with a cool cloth. “Why would someone do such a thing?”
“Because,” Barrett replied, “someone knows she's close to finding your father and getting you both to the U.S. Only, someone wants to beat her to it.”
“Who?” Katie asked, frozen in the bathroom's doorway.
“Good question,” Barrett said.
Well, I didn't have an answer.
I squeezed my eyes shut.
“Jamie?” Katie said. “Your handbag is ringing.”
And so it was.
Barrett helped me into the sitting room. Katie offered me my purse. The effect of the drug was passing now, so the bag's rosebud clasp presented no problem, but I still wasn't eager to open it. I had little doubt who was calling. And it turned out I was right.
“Jamie, are you all right? I've been ringing your mobile for the last hour.”
“I'm fine, Philip.” Or I soon would be. I told him about the Mickey Finn in the champagne.
Barrett, looming over me like the Chrysler Building, asked, “Did he notice anyone who seemed too interested in your wineglass? Anyone too interested in you?”
I waved him to silence.
In my ear, Philip was upset.
“You should be in the hospital,” he insisted. “Where are you? I'll fetch you.”
“I doubt this is the kind of thing your average doctor knows how to treatâ”
“That may be, but it's also the type of thing that indicates you're in danger.”
“Well, a doctor can't fix that, either.”
“Perhaps not, but I shall.”
I glanced at Ikaat, curled on the opposite end of the sofa. Her dark eyes glistened as she kept watch over me. Katie stood at her shoulder, her finger twisting the dickens out of her strand of black pearls.
“I know you mean well,” I told Philip, “but I'm going to drink eight ounces of water, brush my teeth, wash my face, and go to bed. I suggest you do the same.”
“Good night, Philip.”
“Don't disconnect. Tell me where in the bloody hell you are!”
But the urge to do exactly as I was told had passed.
I hung up on Philip and tossed my phone onto the coffee table.